From afar, Thomas Vanek, who holds no ill feelings and understands why Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher had to buy him out of the final year of his contract last June, still keeps an eye on the Wild.
And, frankly, the Detroit Red Wings winger feels vindicated for signing a three-year deal with the Wild in the first place in lieu of the seven-year offers he received from a few others.
“I didn’t just sign there to be so-called home,” said Vanek, the former Gophers star who plans to remain a Minnesota resident long after he retires. “I signed there because I knew they’d be a great team. If anything this year, the Wild’s proved that I was right with my decision.
“It is a team that can win the Stanley Cup.”
Vanek and current Red Wings assistant and former Wild interim coach John Torchetti will be in town for Sunday’s nationally-televised matinee against the Wild. Vanek’s availability, however, is in question because he suffered an ankle injury in the Red Wings’ 2-1 loss at Columbus on Saturday. He missed about nine minutes of the third period, but later returned. He was seen limping after the game.
On Friday, Vanek said he feels the only thing that kept the Wild from being elite during his two-year tenure was the lack of another upper-echelon center.
“And they got that in return for buying me out,” Vanek said. “They go get [Eric] Staal, and that could not have happened if they didn’t make the decision on me. And he’s an amazing player, and it forced them to not use guys who were better at wing in my opinion [Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle] at center anymore.”
Vanek’s only regret?
“The only thing that bothers me is not getting a chance to play for [Bruce Boudreau],” he said. “He has proved everywhere he has been that he’s a winning coach and brings a winning mentality, and he’s done it once again.”
Torchetti, the man Boudreau replaced, also has no bitterness toward Fletcher and assistant GM Brent Flahr, two longtime friends. On Saturday, he raved about the Wild’s consistency. Getting points in 28 of 32 games since Dec. 2 is not too shabby, he said.
“To play that consistent night in and night out, it’s amazing and I think the coaching staff has done a great job getting them prepared,” Torchetti said. “All lines are going, they’re working hard and their physicality the way their ‘D’ boxes out now, it’s very impressive.”
Their trip to Minnesota will be quick. The Red Wings arrived late Saturday night after playing in Columbus and leave right after Sunday’s game. It’ll be just long enough for Vanek to see his wife’s family, some friends and catch up briefly after the game with old Wild teammates.
A down year coupled with the Wild’s need to sign a center made Vanek a cap casualty. He scored a career-low 18 goals last season and his 41 points were the lowest of any non-lockout season. He also missed four of the final five regular-season games and the playoffs because of broken and displaced ribs.
“I definitely had a good idea that [being bought out] was going to happen,” Vanek said. “You look at the salary cap era in the NHL, guys getting bought out happens all the time because it’s tough to move long-term deals.
“There’s definitely a few of them in Minny, so the easiest thing is buying out guys on shorter-term deals.”
In Detroit, Vanek, 33, leads the team with 14 goals and is second with 36 points.
“I still believed in myself that I can play this game,” Vanek said. “I’ve never been the quickest player, but I’ve always felt I can think the game at a high level and still be productive. I didn’t go anywhere to prove myself or anything. I just still wanted to play because I felt that I can play.”
The Red Wings’ 25-year playoff run conceivably could end this season, but he feels the future’s bright in Detroit.
“Are we at a level like Minnesota? No way,” he said. “But is the team far away from being good? I don’t think so because it’s not a team in a full rebuild. I think it’s a team that going through a little transition.
“You look at our team up front, if healthy — which has been a problem this year — we have some young guys who to me sooner than later are going to be unbelievable players.”
Vanek signed a one-year, $2.6 million deal, so he knows he could be trade bait before the March 1 deadline.
“I love it here. My family loves it here, and it’s definitely a place where I can see myself staying for a few more years,” Vanek said. “But these next seven games, the standings in the East, if you win a few, you’re in it, if you lose a few, you could be too many points out.
“So [GM] Kenny [Holland] has to decide if we can make it, which will determine if I’m staying put or moving again. But come July 1, Detroit’s definitely a team I’d look at going back to.”